Big Kitty Kisses

It’s Saturday. This morning after shuffling passed the pile of work on my desk to take groggy refuge on the couch, I decided to do something mildly frivolous. I dropped the search terms “Felis catus” (domestic cat) and “behaviour” into Web Of Science.


My cat, Jasmine, has a sometimes endearing, sometimes frustrating propensity to kitty kisses. It’s endearing when you come home from a long day and she’s so pleased to see you. It’s frustrating when you’re trying to sleep and her sandpaper tongue finds your nose while your eyes are closed and you’ve just started to drift your way into that elusive but beautiful paradise of sleep.

When I say “your” here… I really mean “my”. “My” poor, sleepy, pillow-squished nose or cheek or forehead. Or exposed arm. Or sometimes my duvet if it has the gall to get in the way of her ministrations.

The first relevant article I came across was “Head Rubbing and Licking Reinforce Social Bonds in a Group of Captive African Lions, Panthera leo” by Matoba, Kutsukake, and Hasegawa (2013). While the species isn’t right, this certainly sounds like the right suite of behaviours. I’m willing to cast my net pretty wide to understand Jasmine anyway because she’s a Bengal; a breed of domestic cat that comes from back-crossing hybrids of Asian Leopard Cats with domestic cats. Maybe some of her quirkiness comes from her non F. catus Felidae roots.

Screen Shot 2014-02-01 at 2.42.26 PM

Matoba et al. conveniently start by reviewing literature on other felids. Apparently domestic cats use grooming in a lot of ways. Some seem to use it to maintain relationships with their feline housemates (Curtis et al. 2003). However, some seem to use it to establish or maintain dominance structures (van den Bos 1998)! Later they go on to talk about lion behaviours, such as head-butting or rubbing, and licking/grooming, which is typically considered to be both hygienic and social (Schaller 1972, Rudnai 1973), just as it is in other mammalian taxa including primates (Kutsukake and Clutton-Brock 2006, Wilkinson 1986, Schino 2007, 2008).

Matoba et al. had three non-exclusive hypotheses for the social function of grooming and head-butting in lions.

(1) Tension Reduction: like kissing to make up. The idea here is that some of these behaviours strengthen stressed or uncertain relationships, for example, after conflict or separation. If this was the case, they would predict higher frequencies of these behaviours after periods of separation. Since cub-rearing is communal for lions, individuals of similar ages have probably been closely associated for a long time; if tension reduction is at play, they predicted that lions with bigger age differences would share more head-butts and kitty kisses.

(2) Social Bond: The behaviours may be to strengthen or maintain pre-existing social bonds. Female lions spend their whole lives together in one pride, while male lions form groups and leave their parent prides to become nomadic. These nomadic groups of males fight with other prides, and if successful, take over residency (Bertrum 1975). If the social bond hypothesis is correct, the authors predicted that grooming etc would be more common in same-sex pairs, closely related pairs, and similarly aged pairs because these pairs would have spent more time together. This would be in contrast to the predictions of the Tension Reduction Hypothesis. They also predicted that the behaviours should be reciprocal.

(3) Expression of Social Status: The behaviours could be to express dominance to subordinate pride-mates, or vise versa. Lions do not maintain a social structure within each sex (Packer et al. 2001, Schaller 1972), however, because males are larger than females and thus able to win physical contests, Matoba et al. suggested that there may be a dominance hierarchy with males higher than females. If these behaviours are an assertion of dominance, they predicted that they should be more frequent from males to females, or the opposite if it is an expression of submission. This is opposed to the Social Bond Hypothesis that suggested the behaviours would be reciprocal.

To test their hypotheses, the authors collected 101 hours of observational data across 27 days for a captive pride that included 6 adult males, 12 adult females, 1 subadult male, and 2 subadult females (total 21).

Grooming and head butting was not seen more after separation, and was more common if the lions were closer in age – so they found no evidence to support the Tension Reduction Hypothesis.

Female-female grooming was highly correlated with relatedness, and was reciprocal. Head-butting behaviour was also found to be reciprocal, especially between pairs that were closely related. Thus, they found support the Social Bond Hypothesis.

Lastly, their results show mixed support for the Expression of Social Status Hypothesis. They found that males rubbed heads with males significantly more frequently than they did with females, and that females rubbed heads with males more frequently than with other females. This suggests that head-rubbing might be used to express submission, but there was nothing to suggest they used it to express dominance. Grooming was observed almost exclusively between females, so there was no evidence that this behaviour is related to dominance at all.

This is all fascinating stuff, but from reading this paper alone, I don’t feel like I’m any closer to understanding my kitty’s kitty kisses. After all, I’m not a cat, she doesn’t restrict her kisses to other cats or other female cats. Anyone who dares to scoop her up is in serious danger of getting their nose sandpapered.

I suppose if she sees us all as cats, then she could be trying to strengthen our social bonds. It’s not reciprocal (I don’t make a habit of licking her back; I don’t fancy the thought of a hairball), and it does frequently happen when we’ve been separated (me being asleep is a separation, right?), so there could be some evidence for either the Tension Reduction or Expression of Social Status Hypothesis!

… My intuition tells me that she’s using it to demand attention though. “Wake up and cuddle me!”, “You’re home, play with me!”, “Stop blogging and get the itch on my back!”… Actually, this sounds like an expression of dominance. Yes, kitty master, right away, kitty master.

Luckily, Matoba et al. 2013 contained lots of references to other papers to follow as leads. I have plenty to keep me busy during those groggy mornings when I quest to understand the inner workings of Jasmine’s brain; if I discover anything worth sharing, maybe I will!

On my reading list:

  1. Cameron-Beaumont C, Lowe SE, Bradshaw JW (2002) Evidence suggesting preadaptation to domestication throughout the small Felidae. Biol J Linn Soc 75:361–366.
  2. Atsuko Saito, Kazutaka Shinozuka (2013) Vocal recognition of owners by domestic cats (Felis catus). Anim Cogn 16:685-690.

Two Minute Tutorial: Learn to be a Graph Whisperer

I recently heard that undergraduates frequently do poorly on exam questions involving graphs. I spent some time strolling about the internet trying to understand why graphs might be a particularly tricky topic.

One site told me that a common mistake was conceptually jumping the gun. Ie people look at the shape and try to interpret it before looking at the other critical information that provides context. This potential problem stuck in my head because I could easily imagine how this could become very confusing, very quickly. Once an idea takes root, it’s hard to go back and start from scratch. During an exam when time, sleep, and sanity are all in short supply, students may not even think to go back and check – after all, they thought they understood and answered correctly! If this is what’s happening, it’s no wonder confused and distraught students come knocking at TA and instructor doors.

If you think this describes the trouble that YOU are having, then at least take heart that it’s a problem with a solution, even if it’s easier said than done. I made this two minute tutorial video to try to address this common mistake in a fun way.


Learning to Craft with Sparkols

I spent some time this afternoon playing with Sparkol’s VideoScribe at the recommendation of GeneGeek. VideoScribe is a semi-automated tool that animates videos using images/drawings, text, music, and voice-over. Conveniently, they supply many images, fonts, and music to use in your videos; this was a relief for me because I’m (perhaps a little irrationally) always nervous about royalties on music.

I grabbed a couple of images I drew for a scientific poster and made a very short, simple story about a Spotted Winged Drosophila (SWD, my research species) larvae that wants to grow up to be an engineer.

Spotted Winged Drosophila Engineer from Tanya Stemberger on Vimeo.

The story isn’t exactly self-contained. It’s richer if you know that adult females cut through the skin of fresh fruit and lay their eggs inside; the fruit then rots prematurely. Once the fruit has begun to rot, other species that like rotting fruit (e.g. other Drosophila spp) can get in there too, while the species that would have used the ripe, fresh fruit (like us humans) are out of luck. So, SWD is a little like a micro-ecosystem engineer. I didn’t put any of these details into the video because I was just using this story as an excuse to play with the tool.

I found using Sparkols VideoScribe to be lots of fun with a very low barrier to entry. It was easy to pick it up and make fun little things quickly. This is good, because I jumped right in the deep end instead of watching a tutorial first. They made this even easier by adding little tips to the icons when I first opened the program.

Before I make anything else with it, I’m going to check out a tutorial or two. I’d like to figure out how to do some of the things that I know VideoScribe is capable of (because they are in the example videos) but that weren’t immediately obvious while playing around with it. For example, I couldn’t speed up the morph between larvae and adult fly; I could speed up the “transition time”, but that turned out to be the time between clips/effects. I also couldn’t figure out how to remove material from the frame – e.g. I couldn’t remove the words in the thought bubble, which is why I had to cover them up with an opaque object to add “An Engineer!!”.

Once I have it all sorted out, I think this will be a neat tool for making very short videos, and/or for making short clips to save out and edit into larger videos using a different video editing tool.

Grigs Make Poor Pets

Last week I visited UBC-O in Kelowna for CSEE 2013. It was a fantastic conference; the symposia I attended were informative, the talks were great, I met lots of interesting people, and had some amazing discussions about science, life, the universe & everything.

C. buckelli female

C. buckelli female exploring some linoleum.

The evening after the banquet a friend and I followed Hump-winged Grig collector extraordinaire (and all ’round great fellow & scientist) Kevin Judge up a hill behind the UBC-O campus to capture some of these tremendously charismatic creatures. The evening air was abuzz with the songs of lovesick males.

Grigs are closely related crickets, but their songs are quite different. While crickets make a sort of ‘criiiiiiiiiiick criiiiiiiiiiick criiiiiiiiiiick criiiiiiiiiiick’ sound, grigs’ stridulations  sound more like ‘TRIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII~IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIILLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL’. The song is astonishingly long and shrill. Luckily for us, this makes the males relatively easy to find.

Triumphant and thrilled, I tromped back to the residences with a male Cyphoderris buckelli enclosed in one hand and a female in the other, determined to keep my new insect-friends as pets.

When I returned to Vancouver I cleaned out Hypatia‘s old terrarium and filled the bottom with soil from the pet store.



I buried a modified egg carton, hoping the female might use it as the base of a burrow and perhaps even raise more little grigs. Kevin told me that parental care had been predicted in this species, so I was keen to see if I could observe anything. I cut the carton to have a hole in the side and buried it against the side of the terrarium so I could try to peer in.

Then I released my new friends to their new home.

I awoke that night to my partner desperately trying to figure out which of his electronics sounded like it was about to explode and/or take flight. “TRIIIIIILLLLLLLLLLL”. Oops. I forgot to mention to him that grigs sing.

I moved the terrarium onto my balcony, but even through the sliding glass door, my noisy little friend made his presence felt across 3 consecutive restless nights.

My pair of grig friends are now enjoying their new home in the laboratory where they will only be communicating with each other.

Nancy Baron Captivates the SFU Biology Department

On Thursday March 28th the Biology Departmental seminar featured the yearly Grad Hosted Speaker. This year the graduate students (with some help from the Department) got Nancy Baron, a naturalist, science writer and communications coach from COMPASS and Leopold Leadership to teach a thing or two about communicating our science more effectively outside academia.

"The Insect People"

Graduate students in “The Insect People” group sit down to chat with Nancy Baron about their research.

Nancy spent the morning meeting with graduate students that had been roughly broken up into three groups: “The Fish People”, “The Bird People”, and “The Insect People”. After hearing about the exciting, innovating, and surprising research being done here at SFU, Nancy stood before an audience that packed C9000 to give her official address. She started with some take-away messages from her discussions earlier in the day. (1) People are hungry for science stories like ours: we need to start sharing them (maybe we should start some kind of departmental blog!). (2) We all need to get on twitter to hear and participate in the ongoing global conversation.

Grad Student Lunch with Nancy Baron

Some graduate students sit down to enjoy lunch and more Sci-Comm discussion with Nancy Baron (who is sitting on the left).

Before cutting into the meat of her afternoon talk, Nancy reminded her captive audience of keen academics of the importance of not just doing good science – but communicating it too. I’m sure every scientist has heard the old adage “publish or perish”. I believe the truth behind this is two-fold; first, if you don’t have pubs under your belt, you wont win grants or jobs. Second, if no one knows about your results but you or your lab-group, then that research might as well not have happened at all. Nancy’s talk took this a step further. Many of us hope our research will make a difference, have some impact on the way people think or how policy is made. The sad truth is that it can’t have an impact if no one knows about it, and people wont know about it unless we can tell it to them in a way they’ll understand.

Prep for the seminar

Preparing for her seminar: Does Nancy look nervous at all? I don’t think so.

The talk was titled “One Minute to Impress: And Deliver a Clear Message”; it focused on how we can get our point across by shaping our science stories to be quick and understandable. Attendees completed a rough draft of a “message box” prior to the presentation and workshopping them became the highlight of the seminar. Our thesis-length stories became elevator pitches that we practiced on our peers. Along the way we collected some important take-aways. For example, know your audience – frame the material so they will care, or you’ll lose them before you start. The secret to being a bore is trying to tell everything (~Voltaire). And “the three Ps”: Preparation, Practice, and Passion – the audience cares if you care.

Workshopping our Message Boxes

Workshopping our Message Boxes and practicing our elevator pitches.

All-round, this year’s Grad Hosted Speaker turned out to be a great success. Typically this event is followed by a second day (the Olympiad) where graduate students present their work. This year the Olympiad will be replaced with a poster session style symposium to showcase the message boxes we learned to make with Nancy. This event will be held in the downstairs section of the Highland Pub on Friday April 12th, 2:30-5:30. Between 2:30 and 3:30 there will be materials available to make a poster with your lab mates (please sign up with Lindsey Button to participate: Posters will be displayed starting at 3:30, so even if you aren’t participating, come by for free food, beer, mingling, and science! At 5:00 best poster and door prizes will be awarded, followed by an evening of socializing in the Highland pub.
See you there!

Be Fearless!

Nancy ended her talk by encouraging us to be fearless!

Darwin Haikus

Eight months ago Mike Boers made a very cute GitHub project called “Haikuize“. You pour in text, it blends away punctuation, simmers up 5-7-5 syllables, and BLAM, delicious, senseless haikus.

Some of them are less senseless than others though.

This evening we popped the 6th edition of The Origin of Species into the oven. We pulled out many half-baked, poorly formed thoughts. All of them are out of context. Some of them are worth sharing.

The Hypothesis
Of The Development And


A Woodpecker Has
Become Adapted To Its
Peculiar Habits


The Fact Is Given
As Something Remarkable
And Exceptional


No One Ought To Feel
Surprise At Much Remaining
As Yet Unexplained


In Many Cases
We Are Far Too Ignorant
To Be Enabled

I didn’t read through all of it. The book itself is 1.2MB in plain text; after it has been Haikuized it bloats out to 2.2MB. It’s a lot of fun to read through them one after another, even (or perhaps especially) when they make no sense.

Of Habit To This
Latter Agency He Seems
To Attribute All

All The Beautiful
Adaptations In Nature
Such As The Long Neck

As The Long Neck Of
The Giraffe For Browsing On
The Branches Of Trees

Can you tell he’s talking about Lamark? I even own a commemorative Tee (though I’m not sure if the reference to Lamark was intentional).

If you want to read through the monstrously large version for more gems, download it here or bake it up yourself by cloning Haikuize from the GitHub repository and pouring in your own batter. Alternatively, here is a reduced version of Origin Haikus that only includes those that started or ended in a period before the punctuation was stripped out. Complete thoughts will probably be easier to find in that version.


View of the Ground from the Ivory Tower: CV Spring Cleaning

I still have at least 6 more months of my master’s left to go, but I’m starting to think (obsess really) about what my next steps will be. I know lots of people who write up and defend while employed in full or in part off campus. Since I’ve never done a co-op or internship outside academia, this seems like an intriguing possibility to me. I love (love love love) TA-ing and teaching, so if that is how the wind blows for September 2013, that is okay too.

Even if I completely finish with school (i.e. defend) before venturing into the job market, I figure it will take some serious time and investment to find employment. If possible, I’d like to avoid unemployment while finding employment.

As a bright-eyed undergrad I spent lots of time finding opportunities and gaining experience toward a career in academia. I was grooming myself for this detailed plan I had composed based on all the organized talks and personal advice I got from everyone and anyone I met. Now that I’ve decide to explore more options, I feel like I have catching up to do.

Catching up is tricky though. In a university it’s easy to find people with lots of experience being in universities, but learning how to be employable outside of the ivory tower while still in the ivory tower is.. well, tricky. I suffer from opportunistic and thus serious sampling bias. Lots of other people have discussed this many-faceted problem too.

Today was a holiday (Family Day in B.C.), so I took the opportunity to (try to) update my CV. The last time I had touched it was back in July, so there was lots to add. Adding led to reorganizing, which in turn led to lots of re-writing. Several hours into my CV Spring Cleaning, I started to get restless. How “expert” do I need to be to say I have “expertise” in something? I think anyone who thinks they know everything about anything is probably deluding themselves. Maybe I should include my working definitions*. Should there be a “Skills” section or does that belong in a resume? What goes in a resume vs a CV? Do people outside academia care about CVs anyway?

… Should my twitter handle go under my email address at the top?

My CV Spring Cleaning was starting to feel like this moment.

(*Don’t worry, I don’t really intend to do this.)

Even though there are relatively few people who can speak of personal experience in career building outside academia from inside, luckily there are other resources. I haven’t found my golden solution or written my winning CV (or resume), so I can’t tell you all my tricks yet. I decided to write this post because job-hunting, career-building, and CV-Cleaning have been on my mind a lot lately. Maybe after I check out SFU’s Career Services I’ll have more answers.

Prelude to lessons learned with spotted winged drosophila

It’s now three weeks into the spring semester, and a lot of my time is devoted to training my new students in how to handle, breed, rear, and care for spotted winged drosophila (SWD). When reviewing the techniques I’ve been perfecting over the last 7 months, I always follow the HOW with the WHY. I started these colonies with very little prior knowledge or guidance on how it should be done, so the WHY is usually based on personal experience, and the experience is often “…because they die.”

The spotted winged drosophila is of growing/continuing concern in agriculture across North America and Europe. As the public eye turns toward them, so too does the academic. I know many people who are beginning to consider adding this species to their research programmes because knowledge garnered on this species right now would be both timely and potentially high impact.

I say “timely” because they were first introduced to North America just 4.5 years ago in the summer of 2008. In 2009/2010 there were farms that lost up to 80% of their crop due to this one generalist pest!* Research done now will be “high impact” because results will be immediately important to both (1) the public (stakeholders) who are in desperate need of a knowledge base from which to make management decisions, and (2) the academics interested in testing theories in ecology, evolution, and invasion biology.

This is why I chose dedicate my graduate degree to this species… I’m assuming the other interested scientists have been following similar lines of thought.

The lessons I’ve learned and am imparting to my new students have been very hard won, and I hope I’ve persuaded you that there is (or should be!) interest in rearing these little insects beyond just my little crew and thesis**. Thus, I’m going to start trying to amalgamate my insights on SWD rearing and care into blog posts.

My goal here is to save some other poor M.Sc. or Ph.D. the same months of trial and error by explaining my HOWs with illustrative and colourful WHYs (sweat, tears, burns, and close calls). I wont claim to be an expert in all potential problems; all I can do is impart my experiences and subsequent conclusions. It’s up to you to draw your own conclusions.

It’s still my goal to post here once per week (or more IFF time permits) so the going may be slow as I write about various other topics that interest me from week to week. If you’re interested in learning more about something I write, or want me to speak more to a topic, please feel free to comment or contact me.

As usual, hold on to your hats, toupees, and cocktails.

*If you’re interested in references for these facts, contact me. I’m omitting them here for readability and brevity (in post-length and in time to write).

**Hopefully this also means you’ll be interested in reading MY thesis and publications when they come out – stay tuned!

Metaphorical Pen BACK in Hand

Right now the Science Online Conference 2013 is happening at N.C. State University and my Twitter feed has flooded with excellent advice for people like me. In particular, Melissa Blouin writes:

And Laura Wheeler writes:

And Dirk Hanson writes: ‪

Okay Twitter, okay #scio13 … message received. Today has been one of those days where I thrash at my thesis-related tasks. In the spirit of being productive while procrastinating and with the added dash of Scio13-reflected glow, I am now guiltily sitting before the 4 month long vacuum in my blog logs, metaphorical pen in hand.

Melissa Blouin; this lacklustre post about blogging is me easing back in. Laura Wheeler and DoctorZen; I’m going to blog every Monday evening. They may be short … or I may find my Tuesday routine suddenly aline with the coffee machine. If they are short, lacking originality, or full of unanswered questions, I will take it as a learning experience instead of shyly hiding them in the dusty corners of my Documents folder. If I can’t find inspiration for text, Dirk Hanson, Bora; I’ll draw one of my neglected “Science Dailies” (perhaps that’s in need of rebranding), post a video or a photo.

Now that I’ve told the internet, there’s no turning back.

Transparency in Canadian Healthcare

Last week I posted an X-ray of my right foot that I received after spraining my ankle. I knew when I went in that I would want copies (who wouldn’t?!), so before getting into place to have the X-rays taken I made sure to ask the radiologist/practitioner who was working with me. He immediately said “yes”, that I would just have to speak with the receptionist.

After having the X-rays taken, I hobbled out to the front desk where the receptionist seemed startled that I was standing in front of him. He stared at me until I spoke. I told him that I’d like to get a copy of the X-rays that were just taken. He hastened to tell me that oh no, they don’t normally do that, and he’ll have to speak to the doctor, etc etc.. He went away for a few minutes and then returned to tell me again that they don’t normally give copies unless there is a fracture and this would be a special exception. He made a pretty big deal about what I had thought would be very little extra trouble. After all, they were already making copies for my family doctor.

I left the office frustrated. I felt like they had been on the verge of denying me something that should really just be available to me. They had information pertaining to me and my health; I should have more right to those materials than anyone else on the planet.

Another X-ray of my right foot.

I just read this article by Dr. Makary (a surgeon at Johns Hopkins in the US) calling for transparency and accountability in the American health system.

This got me thinking about our system here in Canada. How transparent are we? Dr. Makary makes a point about there being no (or few) stats or useful information available to the public about hospitals, so potential patients cannot make informed decisions. These same patients will check online descriptions, recommendations, and ratings for restaurants before sitting down to eat. Shouldn’t they have a similar opportunity for something as important as their health?

After moving to Vancouver I went in search of a new family doctor for my partner and I. The first thing I did is go to the official website for the College of Physicians & Surgeons of British Columbia to look for doctors who were accepting new patients. Armed with a list, I then looked at online reviews by google-ing each potential doctor and using Healthcare Reviews. I and those close to me have had many experiences involving medical doctors who provide obviously incorrect diagnoses, and poor suggestions of prescription drugs that lead to uncomfortable consequences (for the patients). However, I also think the first two family doctors I had growing up were chosen because of their convenient locations. This time, I was keen to find someone good.

For family doctors at least, there is a reasonable amount of reviews online. But what about the rest of the system? I had to fight (sort of) to get copies of my X-rays, but the last time I saw my family doctor, she told me that I can see the results of blood tests online! I found a GP using online reviews, but I still haven’t found a dentist. Because an evidence-based approach is very important to me, finding a physiotherapist for my ankle that I didn’t think would prescribe power-bands or reiki has been very difficult (I think I succeeded, but I haven’t had an appointment yet, so we’ll see).

In a quick google search for ‘transparency in the Canadian health system’ I came across the ‘Health Council of Canada‘ that advocates for transparency in healthcare. Unfortunately, they only do so in Saskatchewan, and claim to be the first such organization in Canada. Despite this claim, I also learned of the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI), a federally funded group that collects and distributes information about the quality of healthcare across Canada. They even have this nifty (but slow) tool that theoretically should allow me to compare hospital performance across the country. That is what it claims to do, but I will never know for sure because it loads so slowly.

At this point, I’m not sure what to conclude about what I’ve seen and learned about our system in Canada. For a number of areas there are tools and outlets for getting information at both a small scale (e.g. individual doctors and specific test results) as well as a large scale (e.g. hospitals, provinces, general performance across the country). However, in some places there holes and lags. At the smaller scale, there aren’t enough dentist reviews for me to make an informed choice, and getting copies of my X-rays was trickier than it should have been. At the larger scale, the tool for assessing hospitals is too slow to be effective for general use, and the reports provided by CIHI don’t report their data very effectively: In ‘A Snapshot of Health Care in Canada as Demonstrated by Top 10 Lists‘ are they presenting totals across the country, or averages per hospital? If the latter, there really ought to be error bars so we can see how variable these values are. If the former (i.e. totals), well, I think averages would be more informative for a general consumer like me… especially if they further disseminated the information by province or county.